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Walking Together: Flourishing

Date: 29/01/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Walking Together: Flourishing
Matthew 5:1-12
29 January 2023

Our Focus Theme for 2023:
Walking each other as community towards growth and wholeness in Christ.

But what is growth and wholeness in Christ? And what are the steps that could help lead us towards growth and wholeness?

Today our Scripture text comes from Matthew 5, a very familiar passage for many of you. Perhaps this passage of Scripture will shed some light on what those first steps towards growth and wholeness look like.

Matthew 5:1-12 (MSG)
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

How countercultural, how counterintuitive Jesus words are! And perhaps they carry profound wisdom for us as we consider what it means to live a blessed life.

He says, “You are blessed…” and then he gives all these scenarios that are not necessarily what we would usually consider “blessed.” You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope…You are blessed when you’ve lost what is most dear to you…You are blessed when you hunger…” What kind of twisted logic is this? What is Jesus trying to say? Can this be Jesus’s secret to a happy life?

makarios: blessed, happy

Original Word: μακάριος, α, ον
Part of Speech: Adjective
Transliteration: makarios
Phonetic Spelling: (mak-ar’-ee-os)
Definition: blessed, happy
Usage: happy, blessed, to be envied.

Each of the beatitudes begins with the Greek word makarios, which is often translated “blessed” or “happy.” But some scholars suggest that a better translation of the Greek word might be “flourishing,” such that the beatitudes would read: “You are flourishing when you are at the end of your rope.” etc. The Beatitudes are basically descriptions of what it looks like to be living well in the present. This is why scholars say “flourishing” is a better word for “makarios.”

Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What does flourishing look like to you?

But how could one be blessed or flourishing when they are at the end of their rope? When they have lost what is most dear to them?

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word here for “perfect” is teleios, a word that actually refers to the full “flourishing” of human nature. The Hebrew roots behind this idea refer to being “complete” or “whole.” So this ties in with what Jesus was saying in the beginning of Matthew 5 about flourishing. He was encouraging his disciples to be whole, complete, undivided in heart. That is what he means when he says we are blessed.

Matthew 5:48 (MSG)
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Basically, through the Beatitudes, what Jesus is saying is this:

You are blessed/flourishing when you face difficult situations that lead you closer to God…that lead you closer to becoming whole and complete.

This is not easy for us to accept because as human beings, we would prefer not to face pain, suffering or difficult situations in order to grow and become whole. But this is essentially the wisdom behind Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of describing God’s kin-dom that is both already and not-yet. We are blessed and flourishing even though it doesn’t always feel like it. The already and not-yet — it is straddling in this liminal space.

Liminal (Sacred) Space
Liminal space = the sacred space where transformation happens
Limen = “threshold”

Between the familiar and the completely unknown; the already and not-yet

“The threshold is God’s waiting room.” (where God is birthing something) – Rohr

Perhaps it will be easier to understand if I give you a concrete example of a liminal space. The pandemic was a liminal space for all of us. Whether we liked it or not, whether we chose it or not, we were all pushed into this liminal space of the unknown and much uncertainty. There was fear, there was loss, there was grief. There were definitely more questions than answers. There was and still is much anxiety.

What I observed quite early on during the pandemic was what was happening to us as a church. If I were being honest, I would say we were stuck in a rut before the pandemic hit. We were doing largely the same things year in and year out.

But we were all pushed into a liminal space when the whole world entered an unprecedented time and together, we experienced a global pandemic. As with many churches, we were faced with the challenge of defining what is church, what is worship…especially when we cannot gather in person. We were forced to question, innovate and reimagine how to be church in a situation that none of us have experienced before.

I would say this challenging situation was actually very important to our growth as a church. It helped us break out of the familiar/the rut into the completely unknown/uncertain, to question how we were doing church and what church is really about…how to be community, and how to continue building community when the world around us was in chaos.

It meant we had to take risks that we have never taken before. It was scary but I’m thankful we had one another — our wonderful leadership team and many of you who stepped up to ride this wave of risk-taking together.

Now that the situation with the pandemic is shifting, we need to be careful not to fall back into the rut and just crave the familiar. The question for us is: Can we continue to ride the wave of this risk-taking? What is God’s Spirit saying to us and how is God leading us into the future? Do we dare to continue innovating, growing, and allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable sometimes so God can move us towards what could be?

In his sermon 3 weeks ago, Miak said, “Healing, growth and wholeness requires taking that risk. Only then will God, through the people around us, heal the wounds we have, and lead us to wholeness.” 

That is a liminal space. One of my friends defined liminality this way.

Liminality: accepting what is, and stepping gently, boldly and steadily towards what could be. (Jillian Crisci)

I think this is a beautiful way to describe the Beatitudes:

“Accepting what is, and stepping gently, boldly and steadily towards what could be.”

We are blessed/flourishing even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. God is doing something within us, and around us even though we may not perceive it. More importantly, what Jesus shows us clearly in the Beatitudes is God’s unwavering proximity (closeness to us) in times of pain, suffering, sorrow, and loss. God is nearest to those who are lowly, oppressed, unwanted, broken, and grieving.  

This is something for us to recognize about the radical counter-intuitiveness of God’s priorities and promises.  

You are blessed/ flourishing when you face difficult situations that lead you closer to God.

Question 2 (Open)
What has been a liminal space for you?
You are blessed/ flourishing when you face difficult situations that lead you closer to God. So don’t be afraid of the unknown. Don’t be afraid of discomfort. Most importantly, when bad things happen, don’t think you’re being punished or that God is angry with you. Sometimes the most challenging situations present an opportunity for us to go deeper with God. That is the way towards growth and wholeness.

Question 3 (Word Cloud)
What is one area you’d like to grow in this year?

For me, the one area that I’d like to grow in this year and every year is: to learn how to love and be loved well.

I think our core purpose as human beings is to love and be loved. That’s what God created us for. It’s that simple…and it’s also that complex. It wasn’t meant to be complex but we, the world, people contribute to the complexity. We all started out as babies simply able to love and be loved. But along the way, things get complicated.

So I would say our core purpose as human beings is to relearn how to love and be loved well.

Relearn because when we were born, we were already beings of love made in God’s image. We were born in love for love. But as time passes, our ability to love and be loved is chipped away by a dysfunctional world, dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, by our own dysfunctional selves. As adults, we need to relearn what it means to love others well, and also allow ourselves to be loved well.

“True growth in holiness is a growth in willingness to love and be loved…” (Richard Rohr)

So that is my prayer for both you and me. I think for many of us, we probably work a little harder on loving others than allowing ourselves to be loved. Allowing myself to be loved is not something I often think about, and perhaps this is true for you too. How often does this question come to mind:

“Am I allowing myself to be loved well?”

I think this is important because we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. But if we don’t know how to let ourselves be loved well, how are we going to love others well? It goes hand in hand. When we don’t allow ourselves to be loved, it’s also hard to experience God’s love in our lives. We know we are God’s beloved but we struggle sometimes to fully experience God’s love in our lives — heart, mind, and soul. We understand the concept of God’s love mentally but it’s hard to truly experience that love deeply in our hearts and in our souls.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: “Am I allowing myself to be loved well?” Am I willing? Am I opening up my heart to God and to love?

The Beatitudes carries much wisdom for us as we strive to learn again how to love and be loved well. Jesus brings us to the foundational first steps of what it means to be flourishing as human beings, and it begins with accepting what is, and stepping gently, boldly and steadily towards what could be. And one main area of growth is letting ourselves love and be loved well.

What holds you back from deeply believing that you are loved and you are deserving of love? What messages have you heard throughout your life that has made it hard for you to believe that you are loveable?

That’s what Jesus came to do – to help us realize that we are already blessed, we are beloved in God’s eyes, no matter what the world tells us, no matter what our situations may be.

But this opportunity for growth and wholeness is not just a personal one or limited to our community. We are also being challenged to participate in bending the world around us towards peace and wholeness.

We cannot separate Jesus’s words from his actions. The Beatitudes are not just Jesus’ pronouncements of blessings on the meek, the hungry, the impoverished, and the oppressed. The important thing is what he does with his life in relation to these words. He empowers the meek, he feeds the hungry, he cares for the poor, and he demands justice for the oppressed. Jesus acts. He doesn’t just speak blessing. He lives it out. He embodies it with his whole life. Through his words, his hands, his feet, his body, his life, he participates in bringing about the very blessings he promises.  

We are also called to do the same. The work of the kin-dom is to share the blessings we enjoy.

We don’t endeavor to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in order to earn God’s blessings.  We do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly because we are always and already blessed. (Debi Thomas)

You are always and already blessed. We are blessed/ flourishing when we face difficult situations that lead us closer to God. We are blessed so we can embody God’s blessing in our world — in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

So I want to leave you with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48.

Matthew 5:48 (MSG)
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Know that we are already blessed because we have God by our side to encourage us, God before us to lead and guide us, and God behind us to catch us when we fall. And as the beloved people of God, we are here to walk each other home.

You are blessed. You are loved. Now go, BE love, and the blessing of God to the world. Amen.